I originally wrote this article to submit to an online yoga publication, but I’ve been thinking about what the practice of savasana looks like in our lives a lot lately and decided to revive it from my Microsoft Word draft.
We often start our physical yoga practice in child’s pose, folded forward over our knees, head pressed against the mat. Our asana journey leads us through standing postures and balances when we’re at our most active and engaged until we finally make our way to corpse pose, the final resting place. Another yoga teacher once explained this to me as experiencing the full circle of life every time we come to the mat. That imagery resonated with me and there are lots of other scientific reasons we end in this restful state, totally released to gravity.
Since so many people find their way to yoga initially for the physical benefits, let’s start there. During the practice of physical asanas our bodies are activated in the same way as any other physical exercise. Our blood pumps, our brain releases hormones, and the body enters a state of hyper-focus on exercise blocking out all else. One of the reasons savasana is so important is because it relaxes the nervous system and allows time for our bodies to return to stasis after that engagement. It creates space for our organs and breath to make their way back to a calm center rather than carrying high energy and high levels of adrenaline or cortisol throughout the rest of the day. Meanwhile, our cells and tissues have the relaxation needed to repair.
Yoga teacher, Tamsin Astor, who also has a Phd in cognitive neuroscience, says that more than the physical benefits of stillness that allow our heart rate and breath to slow, the practice of meditation in savasana also has physical benefits “such as reduced blood pressure, increased immunity and improved lung function.” When asanas are taken together with savasana, research has found increased lung capacity, lower blood pressure, and healthier pulse rates (Chaudhary, Divesh & Ahsan, 2012). For the physical benefits alone, it’s easy to see why it’s so crucial to give our bodies these rest at the end of our practice.
All that being said, the benefits do not stop at the physical. Scientific studies have also shown that savasana and meditation more broadly can reduce anxiety, insomnia, and depressive symptoms. Many students have a personal experience with this, but even those who don’t have likely experienced the sensation of mental calm that comes while laying flat on your mat.
The great thing is, the more we practice meditation in savasana, the more we can use it as a tool to reduce situational anxiety and stressors in our day-to-day lives. Just like any muscle, we can also strengthen this state of meditative, rest, and recuperation through regular practice. Then, when we find ourselves feeling stressed, anxious, or depressed later on in the day or before we go to sleep we can use this tool again.
Some Techniques to Try
The physical and mental benefits of savasana speak for themselves, but, if you’re like me, you’re also calling to mind an experience you’ve had in class when you just could not stop your mind from wandering to your to-do lists and other stressors that waited for you off your mat. You are most certainly not alone. Even though we get better with practice, there are some days when it is a challenge to reap the full benefits of this posture because of movement in our minds or bodies. Below are three simple techniques you can try on your own to support your savasana practice.
- Steady the body to steady the mind. Don’t move. Once you get to your comfortable position for your pose, commit your body to complete stillness. A teacher once told me that any small movement could disturb the full expression of the posture. To some extent, that’s true and quieting your body entirely creates the conditions for your mind to follow.
- Try an internal body scan. Starting at the top of your head, simply draw your attention to each small part of your body all the way down to your toes. This gives your mind something to focus on and brings your awareness to your body. As you scan, don’t change anything about your physical posture, just notice places of comfort and discomfort without analyze them or passing judgement on yourself.
- Imagine your thoughts are passing clouds. This is a classic approach to mindfulness meditation and it works well in savasana too. When a thought or feeling comes into your mind, simply notice it as you would a passing cloud. There’s no need to get upset with yourself for having a thought. All there is to do is acknowledge it and let it pass by without further engagement.
These are just some simple techniques that might work for you but there are countless others.
Finding Restfulness in Life
Recently, I’ve gotten to thinking about how this cycle of a yoga practice–often starting in child’s pose, moving through physical postures that may challenge us, and ending in restful savasana–might be mirrored in life. I start most days with a short yoga practice, waking up slowly, beginning to move my body, quiet my mind. The week unfolds quickly–sometimes as a vigorous flow of challenges and occasionally accomplishments at work and in life, sometimes painful disappointments and inadequacies.
Without being mindful of the cycle, I might (and often have) forgotten to find time for a restful conclusion to the cycle. In a small way, I try to do this every day. At the very least, I’m starting to think about my weekends as a time for this practice of a restful mind and body. Even if it cannot be a full two days or even one day, I have the ability to make this time. For me, sometimes this literally means practicing a slow yin practice ending in savasana, others it involves going for a walk outside, or visiting a museum. Something restful that allows my mind, body, and spirit to simultaneously integrate and let go of the experiences of the week.
What benefits have you found after savasana in your practice? What do you do in the times when it becomes challenging for you?